We’re all familiar with the three arrows and the three R’s that they represent. The logo and catchy phrase Reduce - Reuse - Recycle has probably been around since 1976 when Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to address a growing problem- solid waste management. In our happy, capitalist, and very linear economy, companies aren’t interested in the side-effects generated by a product once sold to an end customer. The aim is to sell a maximum number of products at minimal cost. What happens after the sale is the problem of - someone else.
That ‘someone else’ isn’t the Federal Government. In the US, decisions about waste management are local. But it was already enough of an issue in the seventies to catch the attention of Congress. As consumers, we’ve been programmed to buy, use, and discard. But where? Where is the “away” that we throw things to? I doubt many people give it much thought. The trash collector comes and away it goes. But where it goes is landfills (frequently in undeveloped countries.) And there it stays, slowly breaking down into methane and other greenhouse gasses and leaching lots of toxic goo into our water table. That is unless it’s plastic. That stuff never breaks down.
For decades, China was our go-to for disposing of plastic and most of our other solid waste. China invested in recycling infrastructure to feed its growing manufacturing sector with raw materials and at one time was handling nearly half of the world’s recycling. But as with all seemingly too good deals, nearly a third of these mixed materials were contaminated with non-recyclable material and had to be discarded, adding to a staggering pollution problem. In 2018, the Chinese government put a halt to importing most used materials that weren’t up to stringent new purity standards.
The US has limited recycling infrastructure. The recycling that does work is anything metal, which can be recycled indefinitely, and paper, which can be recycled a few times. Then there’s plastic. The ‘virtually everything we own is made of or packaged in’ elephant in the room
There are seven main types of plastics and five of these are hardly ever recycled because the process is expensive and complicated and the resulting product is of lower quality than cheaper virgin plastics made out of oil and other hydrocarbons. Polyvinyl chloride, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polycarbonates aren’t really recycled at all, but downcycled as virgin plastic usually has to be added to even use these for trash bags. AND these all contain toxins, carcinogens, and pollutants. Ick. Greenpeace has asked Nestle, Walmart, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever, companies that label their products made with #3 - #7 plastics as “recyclable,” to knock it off or it will file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission for mislabeling.
That leaves us with polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used for things like single-use water bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is used to make some types of plastic bags and detergent bottles. Yay! Says our single use society - see those thousands of Kirkland water bottles aren’t harming Mother Earth! Not so fast, my hydrated friends. These plastics degrade with each use, so your water bottle may become another bottle or a fleece jacket (which will shed microplastics, but I digress.) Statistically, it’s unlikely. Only about 29 percent of PET bottles are collected for recycling, and of this, only 21 percent of the bottles are actually made into recycled materials due to contamination.
Many products on the market are “never made with their end-of-life in mind,” said Ton Emans, president of Plastics Recyclers Europe. Back to that linear economic thinking. But we can no longer afford to be so foolish. We The People must demand investment in recycling infrastructure for those two plastics that can be recycled and an end to the use of those that can’t. If you don’t think you have the time to write letters to your legislators and the CEOs of the companies responsible (I’m looking at you Pepsico and Coca Cola,) then support the NPOs that lobby for you. At the very least, you can make your feelings known with your wallet. Invest in the sustainable, compostable, not packaged in plastic options. That’s what Me Mother Earth is all about.